In Part One, we looked at two of the old stagers from the Soviet era. Today, we consider two from the next generation.
By the time the Škoda Estelle and Lada Riva were withdrawn from the market, their engineering was over thirty years out of date and both were hopelessly uncompetitive, selling only on their bargain prices. The countries of the Eastern Bloc realised that they needed to invest in new technologies and designs in order to produce vehicles that could credibly be sold in Western Europe. 1987 saw the first fruits of these efforts with the launch of the Škoda Favorit and Yugo Sana. Their fate, and the fate of the companies that manufactured that them however, could not have been more different.
The Škoda Favorit was bang up to date in conception and design. It was available in five-door hatchback and estate versions and had a transverse engined FWD mechanical layout. The OHV 1,289cc engine was lifted from the Estelle, but was mated to a new five-speed transaxle gearbox. Škoda commissioned carrozzeria Bertone for the exterior design and the result was a sharply styled and contemporary appearance, somewhat reminiscent of some other Bertone designs.
Autocar magazine tested a Favorit 136LX in November 1990. The reviewer found it to be a spritely performer. It achieved 0 to 60mph in 14.3 seconds and a top speed of 92mph. The engine power output was just 62bhp, but it was a responsive and eager unit, and its all-alloy construction contributed to the car’s low kerb weight of 840kg, good weight distribution, and light and accurate steering. The Favorit had a smooth and precise gearchange. It also rode and handled well, apart from occasionally inadequate damping.
The interior was smartly designed and contemporary in appearance, but the material finishes were cheap, the column stalks and switchgear felt insubstantial, and ventilation was inadequate. The front seats lacked lumbar support, but the rear bench was comfortable and interior space was good, as was the boot with its low loading sill.
The Favorit was well equipped with alloy wheels, a radio-cassette player, generous toolkit and a removable torch, and was a bargain at just £5,446. At that time, the smaller three-door VW Polo range started at a list price of £6,500. In summary, Autocar concluded that the Favorit was a “comprehensively equipped… thoroughly engineered car with a pleasing, willing nature.”
The Favorit sold well, finding 50,000 UK buyers between 1989 and 1995. Its significance was, however, very much greater in that it demonstrated Škoda’s engineering capabilities and was sufficiently accomplished to convince VW to invest in the company at the invitation of the Czech government. The VW Group took an initial 30% stake in April 1991 and increased its shareholding gradually until Škoda became a wholly owned subsidiary in 2000.
VW regarded the Favorit highly enough to update it with fuel injection and cosmetic improvements before replacing it in 1994 with the Felicia, which was essentially a reskinned Favorit with more VW sourced hardware. In 1996 Škoda launched its first all-new model under VW ownership, the Octavia, and the company’s reputation and profitability has flourished ever since. It is reputed to be the most profitable of all VW’s mass-market brands, second only to Porsche within the group’s portfolio.
The Yugo Sana was manufactured by the Yugoslavian state-owned Zastava industrial conglomerate, previously known for manufacturing a five-door hatchback version of the 1969 Fiat 128 and a smaller, three-door hatchback, the Yugo 45, which used a shortened version of the 128 floorpan. The Sana was sold in its home market as the Zastava Florida and in other markets as the Yugo Florida and Yugo Miami.
Launched in 1987, it was a five-door transverse-engined FWD hatchback with a smooth and contemporary body styled by Giugiaro’s Italdesign. Mechanically, the Sana relied heavily on componentry from Fiat and was powered by the 1.4 litre engine from the Tipo. Autocar tested the Sana in 1990 and found it to be a lively performer, with a 0 to 60mph time of 13.2 seconds and a top speed of 97mph. The reviewer was, however, disappointed by how thrashy and gruff the 70bhp Tipo engine sounded in this installation.
The Sana’s steering was heavy when manoeuvring, and dead and unresponsive at higher speeds. The car suffered from heavy understeer and behaved like an earlier generation of FWD cars. The ride quality was also poor: it was bouncy and restless with inadequate damping. Moreover, the gearchange was mounted too far forward and had a long throw and poorly defined gate.
The Sana tried to redeem itself with a superficially luxurious interior, reminiscent of contemporary Fiats with soft velour upholstery and supportive front seats. The rear bench was rather more thinly padded, although it did have a centre armrest. Closer inspection, however, revealed poor quality rippled trim mouldings. On the move, there was a persistent scuttle-shake and plenty of squeaks and rattles. The standard of assembly was poor and the car appeared to be “lashed together against the clock”.
Overall, Autocar was unimpressed by the Sana, even considering its bargain price of £5,495. The reviewer described it as “flimsy and shoddily put together” and felt that it needed “a comprehensive ride and handling development programme”.
The Sana fell a long way behind the Favorit, but its fate was sealed, not by its inadequacies, but by the outbreak of the Balkan War in 1991. This vicious, decade-long struggle tore Yugoslavia apart when old ethnic and religious hatreds exploded following the disintegration of the Soviet Union during 1990 and 1991.
UN trade sanctions were imposed in 1992 in response to the atrocities committed in the war. This affected Zastava’s ability to import parts and export the Sana. Further EU and US sanctions would follow later in the decade, and production limped along intermittently throughout the 1990’s. The factory complex was bombed by NATO forces in 1999 because a Zastava division was also manufacturing and supplying arms to the Serbian government.
Production of the Sana finally ground to a halt in 2008. Over its twenty-year lifespan, fewer than 30,000 cars had been produced and it would be the last passenger car produced by the company. The Florida was also manufactured in Egypt between 2001 and 2009 under licence in small numbers by El Nasr, the country’s state-owned automobile manufacturer
Škoda is now very much in the mainstream of European automotive manufacturing, while Zastava’s commercial and military truck division was declared bankrupt in May 2017. Zastava continues to manufacture light arms in Serbia for military and sporting uses.
The variety of Eastern Bloc cars available to European buyers certainly added some variety to the motoring landscape, but I doubt many would mourn their passing today, except perhaps as curios of their time.